Xs and Os with the Bros, Week 7: How the Browns Almost Lost the Stupor Bowl

by Cleveland Frowns on October 26, 2011

Welcome to the latest edition of “Xs and Os with the Bros” by Xs and Os editor @rodofdisaster. This feature represents a basic attempt to dive deeper into the game of football, learn something about X’s and O’s, and try to appreciate the games within the game by taking a close look at a play from the previous week. It’s called “Xs and Os with the Bros” because you don’t have to be a rocket surgeon or a former NFL player or coach to get something out of taking a closer look at a football play, so please enjoy the post and the discussion in the comments. OK, here’s Rod:

As much as we’ve heard this week about whether the “Browns won” this 6-3 slopfest or “Seattle lost” it, I’ll take a win any time I can get one. One thing that’s clear after six games this season is that the Browns have some nice pieces to work with on the defensive side of the ball, but this week’s play is one that shows us just how far the Browns have to go before they’ll be able to compete consistently against the NFL’s best. I can’t tell you that mine is the only answer or that it’s the correct one, but you’ll see for yourself that there are a lot of questions raised by this play:

Situation: 3rd Quarter, 4:18 left
Score: Browns 3-0
Possession: Seattle on Browns’ 47, 2nd and 6.

Part I. Pre-Snap

The Seahawks have come out in “21” personnel (2 backs, 1 TE). This is an I-formation. The strength of the formation is the TE (Anthony McCoy #85) to the right. Mike Williams is the X-receiver (bottom of screen) and Sidney Rice #18 is the Z-receiver (flanker) at the top of the screen.

The Browns counter with a base 4-3 and the base personnel. Sheard is lined up over the TE in a 7-technique, Taylor is the 3-technique, Rubin is a 1-shade (angled off the center) and Mitchell is a 9-technique. That’s a fairly common alignment, which makes sense given that 2nd and 6 in the NFL is a pass play about 55% of the time.

The Sam LB is Gocong and he’s over McCoy. Haden is over Rice and Sheldon Brown is on Williams. They aren’t really declaring man-to-man v. zone but my guess is that it’s more likely zone given the cushion and the way Sheldon is angled off and looking to the backfield. This is designed to look like man coverage before the snap. There are two deep safeties. That usually suggests one of two coverages: Cover-2 zone or 2-man. The first question of the day has to do with the deep safety to the bottom of the screen. He’s cheating over to Williams big time. Remember this.

PART II. Coverage

Here we see the beginning of the play. The Browns have dropped into Cover-2 but there are already signs that things might go badly:

1) The pass rush on this play was good enough to flush Whitehurst. Notice that Sheard is eating up THREE blockers. He’s crossed the face of the tackle and looks to be building on some of what we discussed two weeks ago. The pass rush from the other side isn’t quite as effective but overall, I think the Seahawks blocked this up well. They kept two receivers in so there are only three guys out in the pattern against seven.

2) Maiava (the Will LB) has barely moved. That’s never good.

3) Sheldon Brown has his back turned to the QB, which makes it look like he’s playing more man-to-man than zone. Both he and Haden have funneled their receivers to the outside. More on that later.

4) The Mike (Jackson) and Sam (Gocong) are dropping into zones. Gocong is carrying McCoy who’s clearly headed upfield.

III. The Handoff

Here we take a closer look at Gocong and Haden. Both have squatted on zones seven yards downfield and each is handing off a receiver on a deep route upfield to the safety (Ward) who is responsible for that half of the field. The problem here is obvious. Ward can’t cover both guys. With the other safety cheated dramatically over to Williams, there are two big holes to either side of the strongside safety. Actually, as we see in the next photo, TJ seems to barely even notice Rice running down the deep boundary.

At this point, you have two defenders (Ward and Jackson) covering McCoy. You have two (Haden and Gocong) covering no one and you have Sidney Rice so wide open that even Charlie Whitehurst could hit him for 38 yards. Luckily, Whitehurst tangled Rice up with a bad throw toward the sideline, forcing Rice to lose his balance out of bounds when he could have simply crawled into the end zone with a halfway decent throw.

ANALYSIS: It’s clear enough that the “think less, play faster” could have used some more “think” here.

Cover-2 defense is a very basic NFL scheme. You generally can’t be an NFL safety if you can’t play halves (i.e., cover half the field). This isn’t to be confused with “Tampa-2” where the safeties cover thirds and the MLB covers the middle third.

The underneath defenders (2CB and 3 LBs) all have responsibilities as well. The 2 CBs cover the zones in the flat (roughly the numbers to the sideline). The middle linebacker (Mike) will cover the hook/crossers. The SAM and WILL will drop to a predetermined depth/landmark to cover the curls on either side.

With that in mind, the strengths of the Cover-2 are:

a) better flat coverage
b) better underneath zone coverage
c) better disruption of timing and WRs being funneled inward

The weakness of it is that:

a) there’s no safety to help immediately in run support
b) (more importantly) there is a vulnerability in the deep middle and deep boundary
c) the WILL and SAM need to be able to drop to that curl route depth

With that didactic in mind, many things don’t make sense in the execution of this play.

ISSUE 1: Why are Sheldon Brown and Joe Haden NOT funneling the WRs to the inside? If you watch the play, they line up and play inside leverage and actually force the receivers outside. If we can assume they were coached to do that then they’ve given up the deep boundary and they must run with their man in that case. Neither guy does this.

ISSUE 2: Gocong drops to what appears to be his landmark but lets his man run free up the seam. If he sees Haden release his man up the deep boundary then he must stay with his man deep. So, you can see that between Gocong and Haden, ONE of them must have been expected to run deep with their man.

ISSUE 3: Jackson and Maiava. I don’t want to pick on Jackson because I think he realizes on this play that there isn’t going to be a crosser and he’s just getting depth but where he ends up isn’t exactly playing his designated spot (i.e., he’s probably freelancing here). Maiava doesn’t drop to cover the curl and Williams could have sat down between him, Brown and the safety and been open as well. Maiava doesn’t seem to commit to anything at all on this play.

ISSUE 4: TJ Ward. I like TJ, I really do. I find it hard to come in here and bang on him for breakdowns that may not be his fault. On this play, he was in a no-win situation. If he covered Rice, McCoy would have run free down the middle. But I would be interested to know if he noticed Rice at all because it doesn’t seem that he does. TJ does seem to have trouble anticipating the development of plays as we saw in the first touchdown by Tennessee in Week 4.

Of course, breakdowns happen to any team from time to time, but what we’re talking about here is football at its most fundamental. This wasn’t four wideouts running verticals, it was seven men failing to cover three, which might help explain the disaster that went down the one time the Browns had to play against a semi-capable NFL quarterback for four quarters this season. If this doesn’t get fixed we can expect more of the same as the season progresses.

For more on Cover-2 defense, see the outstanding work written up here.

  • Jaceczko

    I love X’s and O’s with the Bros. Thanks Frowns. Thanks Rod.

    Like the Ballad of Phil Dawson.

    p.s. Anyone have any ideas what I can do with the letters on my custom-sewn Browns Jersey, No. 1 with the name “Savage” on the back? I used to say I would only ever want a game jersey if it was custom-made with Phil Savage’s name, because I thought he was the best thing to happen to the Browns since 1999. Now I think Mangini was the best thing to happen to the Browns since 1999, and Savage the second best thing 

    —(wouldn’t it be fun to rank the top 10 best things to happen to the Browns since 1999? Cribbs, of course. And Joe Thomas if he ends up a career Brown. How could we pass over Dawson? Daylon McCutcheon? He wasn’t great, but he was always…there, wasn’t he? Kelly Holcomb in that Wild Wild Card game against the Steelers? The extra draft picks from the free-falling Falcons that we bundled together to get Andrew Luck with? Or the players that we DRAFTED with the extra draft picks next year? The “Run, William, Run!” game—which I attended—coupled with the Jets’ upset win over the Packers later that day to put us in the playoffs? The Flying Derek Anderson Show? “!#@$ go root for Buffalo”? Phil Dawson kicking the block of ice through a cumulo-nimbus to win that game?)—

    Savage being responsible for a lot of those things, I prefer to rate him pretty high. But figuring out how to get me (and apparently many others) more excited about losses than wins was a magic trick that only Mangini could do.

    At any rate, I’m happy with Savage’s name on the back of the jersey. I was just wondering if there were anything as clever as duct-taping the “C” on a COUCH jersey.

    Thanks for your help.

    • http://twitter.com/cnp3 Chris P.

      There’s Couch single handedly annihilating the a-holes on the Allegheny -in Three Rivers, on national television… there’s not much post 1999 that gives me the warm and fuzzies, but I’ll be dammed if I don’t feel super warm and fuzzy thinking about that.

      • Jaceczko

        Good one. How about the @BAL we-lost-by-three-no-wait-we-won-by-three Dawson Pole Game? I was there for that one and I would say the feeling of standing there in an empty section after being jeered by Ravens fans who left prematurely and couldn’t get back in, was warm and fuzzy.

        • Anonymous

          The win against the Steelers in ’09 was as good as I’ve ever felt after a Browns game. And obv. the Saints/Pats wins last season.

          • Jaceczko

            The first quarter of that game convinced me that Rob Ryan could be every bit as good a defensive coordinator as his brother used to be.

            Of course, I knew, when I saw Joe Thomas and the O-line come out sleeveless, and Brady Quinn come out gloveless, while the respective bad guys had sleeves and gloves on, that we were destined to win. The Football Gods were pleased. θεῶν δ’ ἐτελείετο βούλη, as Homer said (sort of) in the Iliad.

    • Anonymous

      I have a very bad slew of one liners to go with an Indian’s jersey with “Savage” on it, but I am worried that our respective cognizanti would believe that it re-enforced the curse.
      Put your jersey on craiglist.  If it is an XXL and my SSO sees it she will buy it and give it to me.
      She bought my Brown’s golf/polo shirt with the almost in-detectable logo for only $4.00.

    • Anonymous

      Well, right now you could add an L and make it Salvage, but I would hold on to it for a while to see what other names may be coming down the pike for the Browns.  You might hit on a big one, so don’t do anything permanent to it just yet. 

      I mean, who saw Fukudome (or as we say back home 福留 孝介) coming?

      • Jaceczko


        I forgot to mention it actually says “PHIL SAVAGE”. So I’ve thought of “Salvage”. But it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to keep the jersey of the best GM we’ve had since 1999.

        • Anonymous

          never above AVerAGE?

  • http://bryanjoiner.com/ Bryan Joiner

    Love love love this.

  • Anonymous

     I’m scratching my head on this one, but wouldn’t everything make sense here if Haden  stuck to man, either by design or on some read, whatever the base cover defense was? Seems to me it’s an option of either he made the mistake, or 3 other guys made the mistake. But in any event, it’s true here and generally that Ward doesn’t seem to get the “safety” aspect of safety. Whatever your assignment, you need to eye up the action, and when you see their best receiver being released into space adjacent to you with nothing between him and the endzone, it’s time to revise the plan. It’s disturbing that he either doesn’t see this or doesn’t understand the significance.

    It’s hard to figure why three guys seem to be laser-beamed on the right flat, I guess expecting CW to get flushed there and they all think they are supposed to go get him? They almost look like they are reacting to a screen, but there’s no back ever over there.

    • Anonymous

      “Wouldn’t everything make sense here if Haden stuck to man, either by
      design or on some read, whatever the base cover defense was?”

      I think that’s right, and sort of what Rod is saying. I assume there would have to be some communication between Haden and Gocong here re: who’s letting what into the deep half.

      • Anonymous

        Frownie… it actually isn’t even something that required a communication.  If Rice goes outside of Haden then he has to run deep and Gocong can pass his man off.  Not only would it not matter in that case but Gocong would have even seen that Haden was going deep and he could play as usual.   Haden doesn’t go deep and Gocong should understand that he then has to run deep himself. In a sense they’re both trying to guard the same area to TJ’s disadvantage. It’s not sound “team defense”. The threat to Haden here is Whitehurst scrambling but his primary assignment is the WR and Gocong can handle the scrambler.

  • http://www.redright88.com Titus Pullo


  • Anonymous

    O’s and X’s for both sexes.

    • Believelander

      Equality rawks

      • Anonymous

        So does rodofdisaster.  Thanks again r.o.d!

        I’ll be the first to admit I’m not dying to know the minute details of these plays, but I sure do have a better understanding of what goes on out there.

  • Anonymous

    ward consistently exposes our secondary, but darnit he can lay a hit! (derp)… last year Adams took the heat.. spin the wheel to decide who it will be this year!!!

    as far as 1 player’s error vs 3, I think it is safe to say that it is a combination, and like dominoes the 1 (or 2) breakdowns caused a chain reaction to those who are getting into a habit of compensating.

    • Believelander

      +1 internets to http://www.clevelandfrowns.com for spreading/popularizing use of the word ‘derp’.

      • Anonymous

        although i cannot credit frowns for introducing me to the term derp (or any other meme for that matter), i do relish in the fact that 1. our community understands the language, and 2. it sums up our team 80% of the time

        • Anonymous

          herp also just let me know he is jealous we use his twin more than him

          • Anonymous

            hurr and durr would like a word as well.

    • Anonymous

      Eric Wright got most of the heat for Ward’s coverage problems last year.  If you check through the archives, there should be a couple of articles on it.

      • Dubbythe1

        Thank you for correcting me Beej , my error

    • Anonymous

       I’m just saying I think the simplest answer here is that Haden was supposed to run deep but missed some read, and that no one compensated when he didn’t. Dominos would have turned out better. Actually I hope that’s the answer, because releasing Rice to the safety doesn’t really seem too smart there.

      • Anonymous

        You are correct. 

      • Believelander

        It may seem less smart, but we -are- thinking less, so….maybe releasing Rice to the safety just plays faster.

    • Anonymous

      I don’t know that Ward “exposes” anyone except to say that when you see TJ scrambling deep downfield, you have to ask whether or not it’s a result of his having to mop up someone else’s mistake or is it a responsibility that he couldn’t handle himself.

      On the first TD in the Tennessee game,  TJ Ward allows the TE to cross his face to the corner of the endzone.  While that isn’t necessarily good, what isn’t immediately clear is that D’Qwell Jackson was supposed to be covering him man-to-man.

      • Anonymous

        i see your point. do you feel TJ is progressing?

        • Anonymous

          That’s difficult to answer dub.  I have always felt that the Browns defense needed an “attitude” and TJ definitely brings that.  He made 123 tackles last year and I think he probably gets more criticism than he deserves.  I would like to see him against some better teams before I comment on progress.  I am concerned about his anticipation on some plays.

          I frequently find myself wondering whether or not TJ will end up being the second rounder Heckert thought he was worthy of or will he be the fourth rounder that other GMs were rumored to have him listed as.  To be fair, those downgrades were probably on the basis of an injury history but we all remember people thinking that he might be a reach.

          I went and looked back at safeties drafted in the NFL draft since 1991.  There are busts as well as good picks to be sure but if you look at some of the picks in the second and fourth rounds you must ask whether TJ will have the upside of a 2nd rounder like :

          Lawyer Milloy , Brian Dawkins, Nate Allen, Tyrell Johnson, Eric Weddle, Sabby Piscatelli, Gerald Alexander, Daniel Bullocks, Danieal Manning, Roman Harper, Nick Collins, Josh Bullocks, Madieu Williams, Eugene Wilson, Ken Hamlin, Bryan Scott, Mike Doss, Terrance Kiel, Tank Williams,  Idrees Bashir, Mike Brown, Kenoy Kennedy, Deon Grant, Travares Tillman, Tony Parrish, Eric Brown, Mike Minter, Kim Herring, Jason Sehorn

          or will he be more like:

           Corwin Brown, Bracy Walker, Tony Covington, Sam Shade, Tremain Mack, Damon Moore, John Keith, Bobby Myers, Tyrone Carter, Gary Berry, Will Allen, Dexter Reid, Glenn Earl, Kerry Rhodes, James Sanders, Ko Simpson, Tanard Jackson, Marvin White, Dashon Goldson,  Quintin Demps, Chip Vaughn


          • Anonymous

            Seems like he and Joe Haden are pretty tight off the field, and support one another on the field.  Great motivation for TJ, I think.

          • Anonymous

            trust and execution.

  • Believelander

    I won’t be commenting the rest of the season because I will be drinking MD 20/20 from dawn to dark until January…

  • Anonymous

    this post was more exciting to read that pretty much any moment of what i watched last Sunday.  

    • http://twitter.com/cnp3 Chris P.

      holy crap, that’s the exact same thing i said when i saw someone’s name carved into a fence post in the park the other day.

  • tj

    Love this column! Thanks for writing it.

    • Jaceczko

      Wow, even ^Ward himself^ likes X’s and O’s with the Bros!

  • Anonymous

    IN DEFENSE OF TJ WARD:  I have read the comments here and I hope to clarify that I wasn’t trying to imply that TJ necessarily did anything wrong on this play.  Again, he was in a “no-win” situation.  I was just wondering if he saw Rice.

    This defensive play will work if Joe Haden stays with his man.   That’s what’s supposed to happen.   He can’t give up the deep boundary route to his man.  If he does, he must run deep no matter what.

    Assuming that TJ saw Rice (and I am just saying that it LOOKED like he didn’t) he has to choose and the choice of the TE is the correct one because the deep sideline throw is far less forgiving and a throw to the TE wide open down the middle is a sure TD.

  • Anonymous

    rod just tweeted a link to this excellent article by Chris Brown on safety play http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/7124536/how-troy-polamalu-ed-reed-changed-nfl-defenses

    • Anonymous

      …and unfortunately both of these “game changing” safeties play in our division 🙁

  • Anonymous
  • clay

    Is it too late for me to get Uconn (+10)?

    • Anonymous

      got it.

      • Anonymous

        trust and execution.

      • clay

        thats it.  Pitt is going on the list.  2nd time they burned me on a week night

        • Anonymous

          I have no sympathy for anything that happens w/ Tuesday or Wednesday night Cheddar action.

          • Anonymous

            If they were really any good they’d be playing after the high school JV games, not before.

  • Hamfist

    Thanks Rod!  These are great learning opportunities for me regarding the game.

  • Anonymous

    Can Rod of Disaster run for something in Cleveland….like President…or something? That slum needs an intelligent Philosopher King for an interim. He could replace Bill Mason, George Forbes and the entire banc at Common Pleas.  The Eighth District too.

    Go Rod, Go.  Purge our disasters.

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